The 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, 2015
- Oldenburg International Film Festival // Oldenburg, Germany // September 16-20, 2015 // filmfest-oldenburg.de
At the “Sundance of Germany” you’ll catch a major premiere, sure, but you’re just as likely to be seated next to a prison inmate as someone who worked on the film. Oldenburg is the only film festival in the world that lists a correctional facility as a regular screening venue, allowing cinema-loving prisoners to enjoy films alongside festivalgoers. (No escape attempts have been made to date.) You’ll see the rest of this beautiful medieval college town during parties “in bank vaults, fire stations and train stations.” All in all, says a panelist, “it’s a great launching spot for a European festival tour.”
- Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival // Birmingham, AL // August 2016 // sidewalkfest.com
Welcome to Cool Town, USA. “I’ve developed a good little crush on Birmingham, thanks to Sidewalk,” says a panelist. “It’s a dynamic city emerging as one of the capitals of the new South—with tons of new places and creative spaces popping up.” Besides an annual who’s who of circuit favorites, notoriously inventive parties (one from this year: “Barbecue, beer, mini golf, mechanical pigs” at an iron furnace-come-national landmark), and a filmmaker retreat in Red Mountain Park, Sidewalk hosts year-long film education programs for the local indie community.
- South by Southwest // Austin, TX // March 11-20, 2016// sxsw.com
“What can I say? I still love SXSW,” admits a panelist, who puts up with “the explosion of corporate nonsense” and “the overwhelming presence of tech and music” (read: annoying distractions) for what is undeniably one of the coolest events on anyone’s calendar. Some of this year’s 145 films were, yes, unadulterated studio tentpoles (ahem, Furious 7), but fresh talent continues to rise to the surface every year. “If you can brave the crowds, plan your housing 14 years in advance, and get a large enough loan to cover the price of all things Austin,” you’re going to have fun.
- Stanley Film Festival // Estes Park, CO // Spring 2016 // stanleyfilmfest.com
Yeah, that Stanley. It’s a horror cinephile’s wet dream to geek out on scares within the same walls where Stephen King wrote The Shining. Expect all the big horror titles of the year—this past spring, for example, saw fan favorites Scherzo Diabolico, The Nightmare and Goodnight Mommy. As a panelist says, programming is “insane,” ranging from an opt-in interactive game to a horror virtual reality experience (eek), all honoring the genre that put its venue on the map.
- Telluride Mountainfilm // Telluride, CO // May 27-30, 2016 // mountainfilm.org
Nothing cooler than a fresh Colorado breeze on your cheek. “Telluride is heaven on earth, and being able to screen documentaries under the shadow of glorious mountains (while in the distance you see headlamps from climbers ascending these peaks) is just the cherry on top,” raves one panelist. Mountainfilm’s screenings of inspirational docs, and its annual symposium on a critical world issue, are complemented by hikes and atypical party venues to suit this high-altitude paradise—an abandoned mine, for example (“You need to BYO-Helmet or else you are not getting in.”)
- Traverse City Film Festival // Traverse City, MI // July-August 2016 // traversecityfilmfest.org
Michael Moore’s documentary extravaganza makes the list again, praised for its warmth and the energy of the fest founder’s “cool friends” (like board members Jeff Daniels, Larry Charles and guitarist Tom Morello). You’ll itch to attend their nautical screenings—who doesn’t want to watch Force Majeure on a catamaran on Lake Michigan? And if you need vocal support for your film, “they will scream it from the rooftops,” promises one panelist. “When we met Mike, he said, ‘You don’t have distro yet?! I’m calling Harvey.’ I don’t know who Harvey is, but he seems like a big deal.”
- True/False Film Festival // Columbia, MO // March 3-6, 2016 // truefalse.org
Expansive/intimate, hard-hitting/fun… win/win. We’ll let a panelist elaborate on this beloved existential festival: “Having a focused program that plays films blurring the line between truth and fiction is a stellar idea and each year the programming gets better and bolder. The fest is a must-attend event for documentary filmmakers and the lack of industry ensures a calm environment. My favorite detail of the festival is that each screening has a live musician playing as you wait for the film to start. All theaters should take note: This is the best way to start off any moviegoing experience.”
- Woodstock Film Festival // Woodstock, NY // September 30-October 4, 2015 // woodstockfilmfestival.com
Moviemakers come to Hudson Valley in the crisp New York fall for an “upscale creative retreat,” says a panelist, where “celebrity guests mingle with local activists and musicians” in venues that “range from the local art house cinema to a renovated barn.” And—as you might expect—this festival has a strong focus on music: films about musical topics (starting with the work of Les Blank at the inaugural edition), seminars and workshops about music in film, and an abundance of live performances to rock out to in between. MM
What festivals did we miss this year, and what should be on next year’s list? Share your opinion, comments, and festival circuit anecdotes in the comments below! And revisit 2014’s 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World here.
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2015 issue, available on newsstands September 22, 2015. Illustrations by Andrew Joyce.